Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

13 thoughts on “Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

  1. This is one of those times when I realise there’s a whole other world out there that I know nothing about! I don’t think the world of cheer would be my cup of tea somehow, but I will certainly look at things differently next I watch NBA or American Football!

  2. Greatr review Annabel. I got fed up with teen cheerleader movies (my daughters went through a phase….) but this sounds like it has a lot more depth. The “Virgin Suicides” book is excellent – I highly recommend.

    • Luckily my daughter never got into High School Musical and the like, so although we’re romcom central now, I never had to suffer the other! I’m going to add The Virgin Suicides to my TBR only reading list for Jan-March.

  3. I’ve read one of her earlier noir novels and I recall enjoying it very much. She is excellent at recreating the ‘feel’ and atmosphere of a time, though I think that the plot was a little weak at the end. Interesting that she should move over into this kind of territory. I’d find the anorexia/bulimia scenes hard to take because I just hate that sort of self-destructiveness dressed up as a good thing (though I’m sure Abbott is a clever enough writer to show how much it is not a good thing). Have you read Esther Freud? I’m currently reading Lucky Break, her novel about drama school students and it’s excellent. She’s another writer who does that late adolescence thing very well indeed.

    • I’m looking forward to trying her noir – I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more than this one. It was a case of showing it like it is without expressing too much opinion on the bulimia etc, – but this isn’t a teen novel – I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone below 6th form – for language, sex etc too. I’ve never read Esther Freud either – I wasn’t really attracted to Hideous Kinky, but may look out for one of her other novels.

  4. I began reading this assuming that it was a YA novel but as I read on my view changed. Am i right about that? Looking at some of her other titles I could see teenagers reading then but they don’t look as if they’re specifically aimed that way.

  5. It’s definitely an adult book – although older teens could read them, they’re not specifically aimed that way. I’ve seen comments from teens who were shocked by Dare Me when it first came out – just because it concerns cheerleaders doesn’t mean it’s for cheerleaders.

    • I must read some of her 50s noir to see which style I prefer. Based on Dare Me, she is one to watch for, but I did feel that Dare Me didn’t have the balance between cheer and thriller quite right.

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